Squeals and giggles were the order of the day as third-graders from Armuchee Elementary School released close to a thousand lake sturgeon into the Oostanaula River on Thursday. Most of the fish were in the 4- to 6-inch range though some that had been held over at state hatcheries were 13-15 inches long. The lake sturgeon is a species native to the local rivers but fished out of existence half a century ago.
“It was heavy. It was hard,” said Analyn Raposo after using a dip net to put one of the larger, year-old fish into the river at the boat ramp on Ga. 140. Even though it was heavy and hard, Raposo giggled and said it was better to be outside with the fish than in the classroom.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources has partnered with a sister agency in Wisconsin since 2002 to bring back a self-sustaining population of the fish for the past 16 years. Fertilized eggs are brought to Georgia annually from the Wolf River in Wisconsin.
Fisheries Biologist Jim Hakala, whose son Sam was one of the third graders putting the fish into the river, said the joy of watching the kids with the fish made all of the days sitting in his office doing paperwork worth it. “Maybe one day when these kids get older, they will have memories of this and help with the effort to protect and preserve the rivers,” Hakala said.
“It was so cool, I didn’t know sturgeon could be that long,” said Tristan Sexton. “And it’s only 1 year old?”
Lucas Ingram said the fins on the back of the sturgeon were “spiking” his hands. “When we tried to put them in the water they just swim,” said Andriana Neal, perhaps not realizing that was exactly what the fish were supposed to do.
DNR Fisheries Biologist John Damer said some of the earliest males released in 2002 are right at the beginning of their breeding age, while the females may still be a couple of years away.
The fish that have been released over the past 16 years generally go as far south and west as the Weiss Dam and, during spawning season, travel back up the Etowah to the Thompson Weinman Dam at Cartersville and all the way up the Oostanaula system to the re-regulation dam at Carters Lake.
The largest fish that have been caught and released thus far are about 4 feet long and weigh between 30 and 40 pounds.
Damer said the state is nowhere close to ready to open a sport fishing for the sturgeon, indicating the state needed solid evidence of a breeding population first.